By Chris Mahr
The constant turnover in college football, whether it’s players or coaches, gives the sport an overriding “What have you done for me lately?” nature. You may have had an unprecedentedly successful season a few years back, but what’s your plan going forward now that [insert player name here] and [insert name of assistant coach-turned-head coach somewhere else here] are gone?
How else to explain why Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship season feels like eons ago?
You remember 2010, don’t you Tiger fans? That was when a head coach, Gene Chizik, whose December 2008 arrival on The Plains was met with derision — both inside and outside Auburn Nation — led your long-suffering team to its first national title since 1957.
And Chizik had help, that’s for sure. The wizard of an offensive coordinator he was wise enough to hire upon his arrival, Gus Malzahn, transformed the Tigers offense into a well-oiled machine. That offense, in turn, transformed former junior college quarterback Cam Newton into the Heisman Trophy winner.
It’s a season that Auburn fans will never forget. Even as the current state of Auburn football looks worse and worse.
During my daily perusal of Reddit’s college football page on Wednesday, I came across a post touting a shirt that was “perfect for Auburn’s season.” And it is. Instead of spelling out the Tigers’ normal rallying cry of “War Damn Eagle,” the shirt simply reads “War Damn It.”
It’s a sadly appropriate sentiment for a 2012 team that has started 1–5, including 0–4 in the SEC. Two years after setting college football on fire with its high-scoring attack, Auburn is averaging just 16.2 points/game and has turned the ball over 19 times (11 interceptions, eight fumbles lost).
The defense, while never Auburn’s strong suit even during the BCS championship season, is also struggling. Almost 27 points and over 400 yards allowed per game and just six turnovers forced. Not to mention giving up backbreaking big plays like the crazy touchdown scored by Ole Miss’ Jeff Scott last Saturday.
Auburn fans are hoping that this season from hell is an anomaly and that War Eagle will fly high again. A more realistic tact: The Tigers could be on the road to irrelevance.
How and why did this happen? Look no further than three of Auburn’s biggest contributors to its 2010 dream season: Malzahn, Newton and then-freshman running back Michael Dyer.
One year after the Tigers’ 22–19 victory over Oregon in the BCS title game, all would be gone. Newton was off to the NFL. Malzahn took the head coaching job at Arkansas State. And Dyer, a first team All-SEC performer in 2011, was released from his scholarship after violating team rules.
Chizik hasn’t been able to replace any of them from a production or contribution standpoint. He hoped that super-recruit Kiehl Frazier could turn into the next Cam Newton, but instead he’s inspired Maroon 5 parodies begging for a “New Quarterbacker.”
And while Auburn has slipped, the rest of the SEC has raced by them. Heck, in the West Division alone there are four current Top 25 teams — Alabama, LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M — with a better infrastructure for the future.
The Tigers have taken a substantial step back in the past two seasons. And in the increasingly likely event that Chizik is gone after this season, they’ll be stuck in the same place for a while at the very best. More likely is that they’ll regress even more on account of no one wanting to jump at the job opening.
Over the past decade, Auburn has made a mockery of the coaching search process. They not-so clandestinely interviewed then-Louisville coach Bobby Petrino in 2003 to take over for Tommy Tuberville even though Tuberville was still the head coach.
The Chizik hiring in 2008 was a head-scratching one in light of his 5–19 record at Iowa State, inspiring a still memorable “We want a leader, not a loser!” rant from a fan heckling AD Jay Jacobs as his plane touched down following a meeting with Chizik in Ames in 2008.
While Chizik rewarded Jacobs with the 2010 national title, many folks saw that as the handiwork of Malzahn and Newton more than Chizik. To a certain extent, they have been proven right.
No big-name head coaching candidate will want to deal with the circus of first being hired and then having to look over their shoulder at the administration, fearing for the security of their job for one reason or another. And hiring a big-time coach will be even tougher when other high-profile jobs like Tennessee, Missouri, Cal and Colorado will all likely be vacant.
More likely than not, Auburn will have to take a flier on a diamond in the rough. Meaning it will take time for that special someone to implement their system as well as get used to life in the SEC West – the toughest division in the country embedded in the toughest conference in the nation. It will be a few years, at least, before the Tigers can find themselves back in a title discussion of any kind.
My advice to Auburn fans in need of cheering up: Close your eyes and pretend that it’s the BCS title-winning season. It may feel like it happened ages ago, but it really has only been two years.
Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.